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The Monroe Doctrine is a U.S. doctrine which, on December 2, 1823, proclaimed that European powers would no longer colonize or interfere with the affairs of the nations of the Americas. The United States planned to stay neutral in wars between European powers and their colonies. However, if these latter types of wars were to occur in the Americas, the United States would view such action as hostile. President James Monroe first stated the doctrine during his seventh annual State of the Union Address to Congress, a defining moment in the foreign policy of the United States.


The doctrine’s authors, especially John Quincy Adams, saw it as a proclamation by the United States of moral opposition to colonialism, but it has subsequently been re-interpreted in a wide variety of ways, including by President Theodore Roosevelt as a license for the U.S. to practice its own form of colonialism, the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.

The United Kingdom was torn between monarchical principle and a desire for new markets; South America as a whole constituted, at the time, a much larger market for British goods than the United States. When Russia and France proposed that Britain join in helping Spain regain her New World colonies, Britain vetoed the idea. British naval power, commercial interests, and common cultural, philosophical, and political links to the US contributed to the strength of the doctrine. They were in fact negotiating with the US before it was announced as to whether the policies in the Monroe Doctrine should be declared jointly (see Lawson below).

The United States was also negotiating with Spain to purchase Florida, and once that treaty was ratified, the Monroe administration began to extend recognition to the new Latin American republics — Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Mexico were all recognized in 1822.

In 1823, France invited Spain to restore the Bourbons to power, and there was talk of France and Spain warring upon the new republics with the backing of the Holy Alliance (Russia, Prussia and Austria). This news appalled the British government — all the work of James Wolfe, William Pitt and other eighteenth-century British statesmen to get France out of the New World would be undone, and France would again be a power in the Americas.

British Foreign Minister George Canning proposed that the US and the UK join to warn off France and Spain from intervention. Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison urged Monroe to accept the offer, but John Quincy Adams was more suspicious. Adams also was quite concerned about Russia and Mexico’s efforts to extend their influence over the joint British-American claimed territory of Oregon Country (see New Albion).

At the Cabinet meeting of November 7, 1823, Adams argued against Canning’s offer, and declared, “It would be more candid, as well as more dignified, to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France, than to come in as a cockboat in the wake of the British man-of-war.”

He argued and finally won over the Cabinet to an independent policy. In Monroe’s Annual Message to Congress on December 2, 1823, he delivered what we have come to call the Monroe Doctrine. Essentially, the United States was informing the powers of the Old World that the Americas were no longer open to European colonization, and that any effort to extend European political influence into the New World would be considered by the United States “as dangerous to our peace and safety.” The United States would not interfere in European wars or internal affairs, and expected Europe to stay out of the affairs of the New World.

This explicitly stated intent was contradicted by cooperation with European powers in the repeated re-occupation of various territories of the island of Hispaniola, regions of which were in this period variously known as Santo Domingo and Haiti. Both France and Spain were interested in re-claiming their territories in Hispaniola, or re-exerting their influence, although Spain was more successful in the 19th century. In practice, the U.S used the Monroe Doctrine to side with whatever side of Caribbean conflicts favoured the United States’ short-term economic interests, rather than definitively drawing a barrier against European interventionism.


The first use of the yet unnamed doctrine was in 1836 when Americans objected to Britain’s alliance with Texas on the principle of the Monroe Doctrine.

On December 2, 1845, U.S. President James Polk announced to Congress that the principle of the Monroe Doctrine should be strictly enforced and that the United States should aggressively expand into the West (see Manifest Destiny).

In 1852, some politicians used the principle of the Monroe Doctrine to argue for forcefully removing the Spanish from Cuba. In 1898, the U.S. obtained Cuba and Puerto Rico from Spain after winning the Spanish-American War.

Between 1864 and 1867, Napoleon III invaded Mexico and set up a French puppet regime headed by Emperor Maximilian; Americans proclaimed this as a violation of “The Doctrine” (see Maximilian Affair), but were unable to intervene due to the American Civil War. This was the first time the Monroe Doctrine was widely referred to as a “Doctrine”.

In the 1870s, U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant extended the Monroe Doctrine, saying that the U.S. would not tolerate a colony being transferred from one European country to another. In 1895, U.S. Secretary of State Richard Olney extended the Monroe Doctrine to give the U.S. authority to mediate border disputes in South America. This is known as the Olney interpretation.

The Drago Doctrine was announced on December 29, 1902 by the Foreign Minister of Argentina. Extending the Monroe Doctrine, it set forth the policy that no European power could use force against an American nation to collect debt.

In 1904, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt added the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which asserted the right of the U.S. to intervene in Latin America. This was the largest extension that has ever been added to the Monroe Doctrine.

In 1930, the Clark Memorandum was released, concluding that the Doctrine did not give the U.S. any right to intervene in Latin American affairs when the region was not threatened by Old World powers, thereby reversing the Roosevelt Corollary.

In 1954, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles evoked the Monroe Doctrine at the Tenth Inter-American Conference, denouncing the intervention of Soviet Communism in Guatemala. This was used to justify Operation PBSUCCESS.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy at an August 29, 1962 news conference:

The Monroe Doctrine means what it has meant since President Monroe and John Quincy Adams enunciated it, and that is that we would oppose a foreign power extending its power to the Western Hemisphere, and that is why we oppose what is happening in Cuba today. That is why we have cut off our trade. That is why we worked in the Organization of American States and in other ways to isolate the Communist menace in Cuba. That is why we will continue to give a good deal of our effort and attention to it.

Main points

The Monroe Doctrine states three major ideas, with one more added by President Theodore Roosevelt. First, it conveys that European countries cannot colonize in any of the Americas: North, Central, or South as well as islands of the Caribbean which were considered to be a part of the Americas. Second, it enforces Washington’s rule of foreign policy, in which the U.S. will only be involved in European affairs if America’s rights are disturbed. Third, the U.S. will consider any attempt at colonization a threat to its national security. Roosevelt added to the doctrine, and summed up his additions with the statement, “Speak softly and carry a big stick”.

At the proposal of the Russian Imperial Government, made through the minister of the Emperor residing here, a full power and instructions have been transmitted to the minister of the United States at St. Petersburg to arrange by amicable negotiation the respective rights and interests of the two nations on the northwest coast of this continent. A similar proposal had been made by His Imperial Majesty to the Government of Great Britain, which has likewise been acceded to. The Government of the United States has been desirous by this friendly proceeding of manifesting the great value which they have invariably attached to the friendship of the Emperor and their solicitude to cultivate the best understanding with his Government. In the discussions to which this interest has given rise and in the arrangements by which they may terminate the occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers….

It was stated at the commencement of the last session that a great effort was then making in Spain and Portugal to improve the condition of the people of those countries, and that it appeared to be conducted with extraordinary moderation. It need scarcely be remarked that the result has been so far very different from what was then anticipated. Of events in that quarter of the globe, with which we have so much intercourse and from which we derive our origin, we have always been anxious and interested spectators. The citizens of the United States cherish sentiments the most friendly in favor of the liberty and happiness of their fellowmen on that side of the Atlantic. In the wars of the European powers in matters relating to themselves we have never taken any part, nor does it comport with our policy so to do. It is only when our rights are invaded or seriously menaced that we resent injuries or make preparation for our defense. With the movements in this hemisphere we are of necessity more immediately connected, and by causes which must be obvious to all enlightened and impartial observers. The political system of the allied powers is essentially different in this respect from that of America. This difference proceeds from that which exists in their respective Governments; and to the defense of our own, which has been achieved by the loss of so much blood and treasure, and matured by the wisdom of their most enlightened citizens, and under which we have enjoyed unexampled felicity, this whole nation is devoted. We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintained it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States. In the war between those new Governments and Spain we declared our neutrality at the time of their recognition, and to this we have adhered, and shall continue to adhere, provided no change shall occur which, in the judgment of the competent authorities of this Government, shall make a corresponding change on the part of the United States indispensable to their security.

The late events in Spain and Portugal show that Europe is still unsettled. Of this important fact no stronger proof can be adduced than that the allied powers should have thought it proper, on any principle satisfactory to themselves, to have interposed by force in the internal concerns of Spain. To what extent such interposition may be carried, on the same principle, is a question in which all independent powers whose governments differ from theirs are interested, even those most remote, and surely none more so than the United States. Our policy in regard to Europe, which was adopted at an early stage of the wars which have so long agitated that quarter of the globe, nevertheless remains the same, which is, not to interfere in the internal concerns of any of its powers; to consider the government de facto as the legitimate government for us; to cultivate friendly relations with it, and to preserve those relations by a frank, firm, and manly policy, meeting in all instances the just claims of every power, submitting to injuries from none. But in regard to those continents circumstances are eminently and conspicuously different. It is impossible that the allied powers should extend their political system to any portion of either continent without endangering our peace and happiness; nor can anyone believe that our southern brethren, if left to themselves, would adopt it of their own accord. It is equally impossible, therefore, that we should behold such interposition in any form with indifference. If we look to the comparative strength and resources of Spain and those old Governments, and their distance from each other, it must be obvious that she can never subdue them. It is still the true policy of the United States to leave the parties to themselves, in the hope that other powers will pursue the same course….


Some allege that, in practice, the Monroe Doctrine has functioned as a declaration of hegemony and a right of unilateral intervention over the nations of the Western Hemisphere — limited only by prudence, as in the case of British possessions. They point to 79 U.S. military interventions in Latin America and Haiti since 1846[1]. Some critics also point to the work of mercenaries such as William Walker, who briefly installed himself as president of Nicaragua, as inspired by the Monroe Doctrine.

Some Latin Americans have come to resent this “Monroe Doctrine”, which has been summarized there in the phrase: “America for the Americans”, translated into Spanish ironically as América para los americanos. The irony lies in the fact that the Spanish term americano is used to name the inhabitants of the whole continent. However, in English, the term American is related almost exclusively to the nationals of the United States, although this wasn’t always the case. Thus, while “America for the Americans” sounds very much like a call to share a common destiny, it becomes apparent that it could really imply: America (the continent) for the United States. At the turn of the century popular resentment in Latin America gave rise to a series of left of center leaders who questioned Washington’s sincerity. In order to explicitly explain what is meant, the phrase is usually changed to “America for North American Americans”.

Other critics have interpreted the Monroe Doctrine as isolationist in intent.

The Cold War

During the Cold War, the Monroe doctrine was applied to Latin America by the framers of U.S. foreign policy. When the Cuban Revolution established a socialist regime with ties to the Soviet Union, after trying to establish fruitful relations with the U.S., it was argued that the spirit of the Monroe Doctrine should be again invoked, this time to prevent the further spreading of Soviet-backed Communism in Latin America. During the Cold War, the United States thus often provided intelligence and military aid to Latin and South American governments that claimed or appeared to be threatened by Communist subversion. This, in turn, led to some domestic controversy within the United States, especially among some members of the left who argued that the Communist threat and Soviet influence in Latin America was greatly exaggerated.

The debate over this new spirit of the Monroe Doctrine came to a head in the 1980s, as part of the Iran-Contra Affair. Among other things, it was revealed that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had been covertly training “Contra” guerrilla soldiers in Nicaragua in an attempt to destabilize the country and overthrow the Sandinista revolutionary government and its President, Daniel Ortega. CIA director Robert Gates vigorously defended the Contra operation, arguing that avoiding U.S. intervention in Nicaragua would be “totally to abandon the Monroe doctrine”. In a case brought before the International Court of Justice by Nicaragua, however, the court ruled that the United States had exercised “unlawful use of force.” The U.S. ignored the verdict.

The Carter and Reagan administrations embroiled themselves in the civil war in El Salvador, again citing the Monroe Doctrine as justification. The conflict was marked by large scale human rights abuses and the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero by right-wing death squads. Romero was the first archbishop to be murdered since Thomas Becket in 1170[citation needed]. The Monroe Doctrine was also cited during the U.S. intervension in Guatemala and the invasion of Grenada.

Critics of the Reagan administration’s support for Britain in the Falklands War charge that the U.S. ignored the Monroe Doctrine in that instance (even though an American nation, Argentina, attacked the possession of an existing European power, Britain, that predated the Doctrine).

British North America — an exceptional Case

Of the regions of the Americas which were directly influenced by a European colonial power, it is notable that the colonies and territories of British North America were not included in the implementation of the Monroe Doctrine. The War of 1812 had already been fought between the United States, the United Kingdom and Canadian colonials for possession of Lower and Upper Canada, and any further attempts at intervening in the northern colonies would almost certainly have led to another U.S.-UK war.

It is also notable that the presence of the colonies — and eventually the Dominion of Canada — within the Empire was viewed from within the colonies themselves as being an important counter-weight to possible American hegemony — indeed, the Hudson’s Bay Company was obliged to sell its holdings in Rupert’s Land to the young Dominion instead of the United States, and subsequent colonization efforts in Ottawa were stirred on in part to counter the presence of American traders in the region.

Further reading

  • Samuel Flagg Bemis. John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy. 1949.
  • Donald Dozer. The Monroe Doctrine: Its Modern Significance. New York: Knopf, 1965.
  • Leonard Axel Lawson. The Relation of British Policy to the Declaration of the Monroe Doctrine, Columbia University, 1922.
  • Ernest R. May. The Making of the Monroe Doctrine. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975.
  • Frederick Merk. The Monroe Doctrine and American Expansionism, 1843-1849. New York: Knopf, 1966.
  • Gretchen Murphy. Hemispheric Imaginings: The Monroe Doctrine and Narratives of U.S. Empire. Duke University Press, 2005. Examines the cultural context of the doctrine.
  • Dexter Perkins. The Monroe Doctrine, 1823-1826. 3 vols. 1927.
  • (it) Nico Perrone. Il manifesto dell’imperialismo americano nelle borse di Londra e Parigi. In Belfagor (Italian review), 1977, iii. Examines the reactions of the European stock exchange markets.
  • Joel S. Poetker. The Monroe Doctrine. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Books, Inc, 1967.
  • Gaddis Smith. The Last Years of the Monroe Doctrine, 1945-1993. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994. Argues that the Monroe Doctrine became irrelevant after the end of the Cold War.
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